2018 elections offer surprises, confirmations and plenty of litigation

By Published: December 28, 2018 10:03 PM CT

Shelby County voters broke some long-held habits and confirmed others in a busy and what looks – at least in hindsight – to be a pivotal 2018 election year.

The Nov. 6 ballot was the first turnout of a majority of county voters in a nonpresidential general election since the November 1994 midterms.

In the two statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senate, the county — which has the largest Republican and Democratic bases of any single county in the state — proved to be a bigger blue, or Democratic, dot in a state that remains overwhelmingly red, or Republican.

In the August county general elections, local Democrats did better than even they expected. Party leaders expected Democratic nominees to fare better in races for County Commission seats and 10 partisan countywide offices simply because Democrats couldn’t do much worse than they did in 2010, when Republicans swept all countywide offices, and 2014, when they swept all but one.

BILL DRIESBallot Basics: The Elections of 2018

Democratic candidates took every countywide office and added a seat to the seven-vote Democratic majority on the 13-member County Commission.

Lee Harris easily took the county mayor’s race in August and Floyd Bonner just as easily became the county’s first elected black sheriff.

Trio of City Council vacancies

The effect of the county sweep spilled over into the politics of City Hall in a way few could have foreseen.

Memphis City Council members Janis Fullilove, Bill Morrison and Edmund Ford Jr. – all of whom were facing term limits on the council – were among the Democrats winning a seat in county government.

Fullilove was elected Juvenile Court clerk in the closest of the countywide races. Morrison was elected Probate Court clerk, and Ford was elected to the Shelby County Commission seat held by his cousin Justin Ford, who was term-limited.

BILL DRIESPast the Election: Issues remain after the last election of 2018

All three took the position that they would not resign from the council before Aug. 22, the deadline to put their council seats on the Nov. 6 ballot. Instead, they would take most of the 90 days allowed by law to hold both offices before having to give one up.

Ford and Morrison said they had things they wanted to accomplish legislatively in the three-month window. Ford was seeking a transportation utility fee to provide a revenue stream for the Memphis Area Transit Authority; that idea is still alive but has stalled. Morrison’s pursuit was less clear. Fullilove initially said she was too busy with the transition to clerk to resign.

Earlier in the year, the council had filled the seat vacated by Philip Spinosa with Ford Canale. But there were some signs during Canale's appointment of the problems to come for the council on the three later vacancies.

Chairman Berlin Boyd stopped the roll-call vote as soon as Canale reached seven votes, instead of letting the vote continue. Six contenders had applied for the vacancy, but only four were nominated. Canale won a special election in August to serve out the rest of the term.

When the first of the three vacancies — Morrison’s District 1 seat — was to be filled in November, the process began with no nominations to narrow the field of six applicants. Council members began the first of 112 roll-call votes by choosing from all six of the contenders before Boyd managed to recess the meeting to a later date.

The council deadlocked with no contender able to get seven votes to claim the seat. Former council member Rickey Peete – twice convicted on federal charges of selling his council vote – was among those endorsing Raleigh Community Development Corp. director Rhonda Logan, the frontrunner for the seat. The other finalist, Flinn Broadcasting Corp. national sales manager Lonnie Treadaway, had moved into the Raleigh part of District 1 in July and a year earlier had run for alderman in Senatobia, Mississippi.

Logan’s appointment would have changed the racial dynamics of the council – taking it from a seven-member black majority to eight for the first time in the 50-year history of the mayor-council form of government. The council's failure to appoint Morrison's replacement led to accusations of racism.

Ford and Fullilove were among the six members who supported Logan, but by the time the council attempted another vote, their resignations had taken effect. And with only 10 members left on the body, it was much more difficult to get a seven-vote majority to fill the District 1 seat.

Council members tried to open the balloting to four other contenders who had been eliminated earlier, but the four remaining council members who supported Logan – Joe Brown, Martavius Jones, Patrice Robinson and Jamita Swearengen – walked out of the session, leaving the body without a quorum. Treadaway withdrew after losing the support of Councilman Reid Hedgepeth, one of his staunchest supporters.

Brown, Jones, Robinson and Swearengen hired an attorney but returned for the last meeting of the year, taking two more inconclusive roll-call votes on Logan before pushing the matter and the two other vacancies to the Jan. 8 council meeting – the first of the new year.

Election Commission lawsuits

Meanwhile, the Shelby County Election Commission was sued six times in 2018 as it began the process of moving toward buying new voting machines for the 2019 Memphis elections.  

The Memphis Branch NAACP and Shelby County Democratic Party sued the election commission in July, seeking an earlier opening for more early voting sites across the county.

Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins ruled the election commission's plan to open three early voting locations several days before 24 others opened would give African-Americans fewer voting opportunities than whites. She ordered the commission to open two more sites early, marking the first court-ordered change in early voting since the practice launched in the mid-1990s.

Jenkins also ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor in another NAACP lawsuit with the Tennessee Black Voter Project in advance of the November election over a backlog of several thousand voter registration forms.

Jenkins' ruling left in place an early voting process to resolve discrepancies with some of the incomplete forms on Election Day. An emergency appeal by the election commission to the Tennessee Court of Appeals voided Jenkins’ order in that case.

BILL DRIESAppeals court stays most of ruling on voter registration forms

Advocates for instant-runoff voting (IRV) in city elections went to Chancellor Jim Kyle, asking the court to remove three referendums from the November ballot. The Save IRV organization argued two ballot questions – one to repeal IRV and the other to expand the city's term limits – were misleading in their wording. They argued the third referendum, over whether to do away with the existing city election runoff provision, posed more questions than it resolved.

Kyle ruled the challenge was premature until or unless city voters approved some or all of the proposals. He came to the same conclusion in a second lawsuit by Save IRV challenging the City Council’s vote late in the campaign season to spend up to $40,000 on a “public information campaign” explaining and advocating for the three charter changes. Critics of that specific council action, including Councilman Worth Morgan, were still awaiting word on how the money was spent at year’s end.

The election commission was sued in Memphis federal court by the group SAVE – Shelby Advocates for Valid Elections – seeking to bar the use of the existing touch-screen voting machines after the November elections and requiring a court-appointed monitor as well as an audit of voting machine security. The lawsuit, which was a bid for machines with a printed audit trail — is still pending.

Three of the four new voting-machine systems the election commission is considering for 2019 would have such an audit trail.

All three of the city charter amendment proposals, it turns out, were handily rejected by voters.

Waiting in the new year are more legal questions about the coexistence of the 50-year-old runoff provision with the attempt to carry out the 10-year old IRV provision and Tennessee election law.

The election commission is awaiting a ruling from an administrative law judge on the matter. A lawsuit was filed by Save IRV against the election commission on the same point in Davidson County Chancery Court after the November elections.

The sixth lawsuit against the election commission was filed by John Barzizza in November, contesting the results of the Germantown mayoral race. The certified vote totals stated Barzizza lost to incumbent Mike Palazzolo by 120 votes. The Chancery Court lawsuit was still pending at year’s end.

With the rejection of the term limits charter change, at least three council incumbents – Kemp Conrad, Reid Hedgepeth and Joe Brown — will be leaving the council after the 2019 city elections. Brown is the longest-serving incumbent. Hedgepeth is the last of nine council incumbents who came to City Hall in 2007 in the largest turnover of seats in the 50-year history of the mayor-council form of government. Conrad was elected to the council in 2010 to fill a vacancy.


2018 Elections Shelby County Election Commission Memphis City Council Save IRV Memphis Branch NAACP
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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